I love Amy Poehler! Her work on PARKS AND RECREATION (2009–2015), her creation of Upright Citizens Brigade, and roles in numerous movies are testaments to her skill and place as one of the leading comedians of her generation. But that’s in regards to acting and even writing accomplishments. When it comes to directing, Poehler has left something to be desired across the three movies she’s helmed since 2019. This may be a good time to mention that the headline to this piece, “The Amy Poehler Movies Ranked,” refers to what she’s directed. In any event, it’s not like Poehler hasn’t been behind the camera before and to better results. But that was on TV, with episodes of shows like PARKS AND RECREATION and BROAD CITY (2014–2019). When it comes to the apparently higher stakes world of film, Poehler has mostly not transferred the appeal of her on-camera work from the decades before, although ironically, she also stars in her two missteps. At the risk of coming off too negative or sounding like an Amy Poehler hater (I’m certainly not that): here is what I think of her three movies so far.
#3 — MOXIE (2021)
I actually feel a bit conflicted putting MOXIE at last place. Poehler’s sophomore effort was, in some ways, an improvement on her typically formulated comedy WINE COUNTRY. But in its own way, MOXIE was also birthed out of a stagnant pool, the residence of faux-progressive, neoliberal, “girlboss” teen dramas and comedies that seem to populate half of Netflix and other streaming services. Better writers than I, and ones with more of a stake in marginalized communities, like women of color, trans people, and disabled people, have elaborated in detail the problems with MOXIE. But as I see it, it’s a pretty cynical, rote, and advantageous leveraging of tokenism. Its thin veneer of progressivism is at first blush admirable, in a way. I like the general scope of a girl starting a zine to tackle the blatant sexism at her school, but the way it’s rendered is so didactic. Honestly, subtlety is sometimes overrated, especially in the context of social commentary; I can dig blunt messages. But MOXIE’s strength is not in its didacticism, which is also formally delivered in such an ineffective way that I couldn’t help but cringe. The performances are on the whole pretty lame, which is to be expected considering some of the correspondingly lame dialogue, and the look of the movie falls into the bland framing and set dressing of many things coming out today. MOXIE’s most troubling elements are certainly its white savior implications and crass use of people as props (the girl who was a wheelchair user’s place as an aside punchline without any further development especially glared), but it’s also just a poorly put together movie.
#2 — WINE COUNTRY (2019)
Look, it gives me no pleasure to say WINE COUNTRY is better than MOXIE. Poehler’s directorial debut is in the vein of studio comedy we’ve seen since the mid 2000s, epitomized by the likes of BRIDESMAIDS (2011). The ensemble of Poehler herself, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer, Paula Pell, and Tina Fey held a lot of promise, but everyone mostly gives a lukewarm performance from the script they were given. Fey is especially hard to watch, while Rudolph is the obvious highlight (which is usually the case). I think there’s some sweetness in the themes of aging womanhood and female friendships, and in the case of “working with what you know,” I think that comes across more genuinely than the landscape of today’s youth does in MOXIE. But this is a slight concession to the otherwise middling-to-bad quality of WINE COUNTRY’s jokes, which often seem to stretch out to uncomfortable lengths or rear their head, unbidden, throughout the rest of the movie.
#1 — LUCY AND DESI (2022)
Poehler’s “greatest” directorial achievement is also her latest. LUCY AND DESI, the documentary about I LOVE LUCY (1951–1957) stars and world-changing figures Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, was just released at the time of this writing and is the impetus for this piece. It’s also a pretty paint-by-numbers approach to a story that’s been told in many forms for decades, using archival footage and talking heads. Honestly, the select few people interviewed, who pop up just every once in a while, make me feel the movie would have been improved without them, with the exception of the insight Lucy and Desi’s daughter Lucie provides at the end of the movie. I also appreciated the use of various audio sources from Lucy, Desi, and their collaborators over the years, played over other footage or images. The subject matter of LUCY AND DESI is very near and dear to me; I LOVE LUCY is one of my favorite shows of all time, as it was for my grandmother. Any time I watch anything having to do with Lucille Ball I think of my grandma, and that’s a comforting thing. Barring some kind of disastrous approach, I knew this movie would satisfy me to some extent. And LUCY AND DESI went a bit beyond that expectation, as it brought to life some really challenging and touching aspects of Arnaz and Ball’s relationship, before, during, and after their marriage. Poehler’s own love for Ball is made clear through the doc, even if it falls into some well-trod territory with its narrative and visual and structural approach. LUCY AND DESI is worth watching for any I LOVE LUCY fan, and it stands so far as Poehler’s clearest work, one that enriched rather than left me feeling cold.